Eclipsed; Celestial Mechanics of an Amber Moon Rising

The Birmingham Post (England), January 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

Eclipsed; Celestial Mechanics of an Amber Moon Rising


In days gone by the Chinese believed eclipses were caused by immense dragons greedily devouring the moon and the sun. In their fright they would beat drums and brass kettles to terrify the monsters into releasing their prey.

The welcome for last night's eclipse was slightly more muted as families peered out of windows or gathered in woolly scarves and hats in the garden to watch the moon turn amber in one of the best examples of the lunar phenomenon in recent years.

Astronomy is enjoying the kind of popular renaissance that until now astronomers have only been able to dream of.

With our interest still fired up by the total eclipse of the sun in 1999, many of us watched, huddled in the cold last night, as the earth first took a 'bite' out of the moon before 'swallowing' it whole.

And although our vast knowledge of astronomy nowadays has inevitably taken the mystery out of the movement of earth and the planets, few of us watching the moon glow orange could fail to be touched by the magic of trying to comprehend the immense forces eternally at work in our universe.

Those living in ancient times did not have the benefit of science and thus it is little surprise then that they came up with their own explanations for eclipses.

An eclipse was seen as a dire warning of a terrible event. In Rome, it was regarded as blasphemy and punishable by law to talk of eclipses being due to natural causes.

One man who used the popular superstitions surrounding eclipses to his own ends was Christopher Columbus. Marooned in Jamaica, he and his crew were refused food and drink by the locals. He knew that an eclipse was due on February 29, 1504, so he told the natives that unless they helped him, he would do a deal with God and take away the moon.

As the eclipse took hold - and the locals grew more and more frightened - Columbus drove a hard bargain, ensuring that the Spanish would receive food for as long as they stayed.

Science has for the most part made such superstition a thing of the past, but there are still people who believe an eclipse bears mystical power.

In some parts of India, pregnant women stay inside, sometimes fasting and praying. Pilgrims bathe in holy waters, conch shells are blown to drive away evil forces, and food is wrapped in leaves to avoid poisoning.

Closer to home, witches gathered at 7.30pm last night to shield disaster-laden negative energy which they believe is caused by the eclipse of the moon. Around 1,500 witches across the world, many of them in Britain, gathered in their robes and chanted in circles to concentrate on dispelling the doom.

MEL HUNTER

Mike Cruise, professor of Space Science and Astronomy at Birmingham University, explained the phenomenon of a lunar eclipse.

'Eclipses are very common around the world and it is only that it is happening above northern Europe that this one is special to us.

'The Earth simply gets between the sun and the moon and so blocks off any light reflecting off the moon's surface. As there is such a long distance between the sun and moon the earth does not cast a large enough shadow to plunge the moon into total darkness.

'Because of this and the laws of refraction, a leakage of light reaches the moon and causes it to appear a deep orange or red colour.'

Gradually the 'bite' - the curved edge of the Earth's shadow - creeps across the moon's face taking nearly three hours to pass it completely. Last night the moon was totally covered for approximately half an hour.

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